Does European agricultural policy work for pastoralists?

A new paper by Michele Nori analyses the policy landscape for pastoralists in Europe. It is the first of four working papers on the framing of policy around pastoralism in different regions of the world (other papers, on Asia, West Asia and North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa, will be covered in future posts).

The new paper focuses on the impacts on pastoralists of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in the European Union (EU). The CAP has governed European agriculture since its introduction in 1962, aiming to support farmers, rural economies, and consumers through various measures and incentives, including subsidies for food producers as well as for environmental managers. For pastoralists, the outcomes have been mixed.

Consequences of the CAP

The CAP initially focused on increasing productivity. However, a series of later reforms have increasing taken into account other concerns – including sustainability, food safety, animal welfare and the social dimensions of the rural world. The most recent reforms focus even further on concerns around the environment and climate, as well as organisation, participation and capacity building among farmers themselves.

Pastoralism in Sardinia. Photo: PASTRES

European policy is theoretically designed to support pastoralism: it recognises “its valuable and irreplaceable role in providing various environmental, economic and cultural benefits”. Accordingly, extensive livestock farming is supported by indirect and direct measures – including compensation for operating in ‘less favoured areas’ (LFA) and in ‘high nature value’ (HNV) settings.

However, in practice, the outcomes for pastoralists are often disappointing. The number of extensive livestock farms has declined sharply in recent decades. Generational renewal is at risk, with growing concerns on the socio-economic and agro-ecological implications of such trends.


EU policy measures are sector-based and fragmented, and often have unintended consequences for broader pastoral resource management. Examples of this include the Single Payment Entitlement, which is tied to land holdings: it effectively favours intensive farmers with large holdings, and penalises extensive livestock breeders who graze on common lands.

In certain regions, CAP funding has triggered phenomena of land speculation, including the creation of fake titles and ‘ghost herds’. In others, CAP measures fail to remunerate pastoralists who graze animals in forest areas, and are sometimes used to convert pasturelands into forest plantations, with negative impacts on grazing and biodiversity and higher risks of fires.

The significance of the CAP for pastoralists

Despite unintended consequences, and inconsistencies in design and outcomes, the CAP remains very significant for pastoralists in the EU, supporting about a half or more of their revenue in most regions. Any changes in the policy framework, therefore, would have a major impact on the sector, contribute to further uncertainties for European pastoralists.

Trade agreements, environmental concerns and consumption patterns in the EU also affect the world outside its borders. As some Europeans have abandoned pastoralism, shepherds from elsewhere have migrated to fill the relative vacuum. Large exports of certain EU products, for example milk powder, have affected the ability of some countries to develop local markets. And EU standards affect producers who want to trade with EU countries, favouring those who are able to meet criteria and rules and fulfil the administrative requirements for trade.

A shepherd with flock on the outskirts of Bucharest, Romania. Photo: Petruṭ Călinescu

How could pastoralists be better supported?

The European Green Deal and the 2020 EU Farm to Fork strategy suggest strong ambitions to reorient food production towards more sustainable practices. In theory, extensive livestock production could play a major role in these ambitions.

However, there are major flaws in the ways that the CAP is designed, targeted and implemented – which are extensively addressed in Michele Nori’s paper. These inconsistencies and related problems don’t only affect the livelihoods of pastoralists: they will also have impacts on landscapes, cultures and ecosystems in large areas of Europe.

What might help to address these issues for pastoralists? A step forward would be to recognise that pastoralists play multiple functions and provide critical services to ecosystems and society, as well as providing high quality products for consumers. Accordingly, pastoralists should be brought into the policy dialogue, so that their concerns and contributions can be properly understood.

Another positive step would be to think through the different spheres affecting the European rural world – including trade agreements, labour market, environment- and climate-related policies and territorial cohesion – and to develop a consistent and integrated policy framework amongst them.

Read the paper

Assessing the policy frame in pastoral areas of Europe
Working Paper, EUI RSC, 2022/03, Global Governance Programme-461
by Michele Nori

Featured image: Pastoralists in Sardinia, by Giulia Simula

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s